There was a time, not even that long ago, where the very idea of visual effects was compelling enough in itself that its very presence was enough. We would sit around the computer and watch what were essentially screensavers (with no interactive element) and marvel at the quality of 3D. We would consistently marvel at how realistic things seemed — even if, in retrospect, they were nothing of the sort. (I remember being knocked on my ass by Mario 64, a game that now looks nearly abstract in its blurry, jagged visuals.) At the time, it was hard to fathom that visuals would ever look better — it seemed, as it always has, that every technological advance was the absolute end of the line.
That’s not the case anymore. There are ads on my phone that look better than Mario 64, and special effects have become so developed that we hardly notice them anymore. I don’t doubt that there will be a point in the future where this cutting-edge technology will look like a bag of wilted ass in comparison, but I find the fact that we are hardly — if ever — blown away by technological advances leads me to believe we’re over this particular hump. That does cause a whole heap of problems for Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, a nostalgic attempt at a cash grab so perfidious that it even leans on a deeply-’90s conception of why people would want to see a movie to begin with.
This new Lion King lines up with Disney’s current orderly pilfering of its archives to remake every hit animated film into a nearly identical live-action version. Of course, this approach has its limitations — if you remake the ’70s Robin Hood movie through live-action, you’re just making a Robin Hood movie. The Lion King is a big question mark in that regard – how can you really remake a movie about talking animals “with people”? You don’t, of course. Favreau’s Lion King is, as far as I can tell, a 99 per cent digital creation that leans very much on the earth tones and textures of the real world. Without much in the way of stylization, The Lion King comes across as the world’s most elaborately fussed-over nature documentary overlaid with one of those table reads that Jason Reitman does at JFL where a bunch of celebrities basically run through the shooting script of something that already exists and is widely beloved for it.
The plot will not surprise you: Simba (voiced as an adult by Donald Glover) is the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the Lion King who rules over all the animals of the kingdom. Tradition dictates that Simba will one day also become king, which greatly pisses off his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Eijofor), who considers himself the rightful heir to the throne. Scar rustles up a trio of scavenging hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key) to try and take Simba out; it doesn’t really work until Scar manages to trap Simba in the middle of a stampede, which in turn leads to the death of Mufasa. Scar convinces Simba that his father’s death was his fault and advises him to run as far away as possible – which he does, eventually falling with worry-free meerkat-and-warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen), who raise him to be a directionless hedonist while his pack goes to seed under the terrible guidance of Scar.
Much has been made about how great the visuals are in the film — early reviews praised the film as a visual delight above all else. From a purely technical standpoint, sure — the animals look absolutely photorealistic and the amount of craft that has been put in mud, dirt, fur, water, etc. is commendable. It would be fantastic if they were making, for some reason, a nature documentary — perhaps setting the stage for the future of nature documentaries when most of these species are wiped out by global warming — but they aren’t. The lions are simply not expressive enough to embody the voices that are coming out of them. Some of the other animals (particularly Timon) fare much better, but the general stone-faced nature of the lions makes the whole thing alienating.
Though I haven’t seen the original recently enough to be able to compare it properly, it certainly seems to me that Favreau’s new take skews even closer to the original narratively than any other of these Disney reboots. Though this movie is considerably longer and the original is 25 years old (as I was seven years old when it came out, I will surmise a guess that I saw it approximately a dozen times at the time and no times since then), I still felt like I had just seen this movie. This has the peculiar effect of turning everything in this grandiose movie into a kind of bite-sized slog. How a movie longer and more elaborate than the one it remakes can feel like a condensed, greatest-hits version of itself is rather mind-blowing.
There’s a friend that I bring periodically to screenings with me who always comes down on bad movies by saying “well, I didn’t hate watching it”, which is essentially the lowest possible bar – that something you ostensibly do for pleasure did not, conversely, bring you pain. I didn’t hate watching The Lion King; in some ways, the pleasure receptors of nostalgia were tickled. But in most ways, it felt like a chore – it felt exactly how it feels when I record an interview with someone, then listen to it the next day to transcribe it. It felt like living through something that had just happened, its beats so familiar and well-trod that they instantly trigger déjà vu. For some people, that’s more than enough; those are the same kind of people who marvel at a cover version of a song that hits note for note like the original. I guess there’s artistry in that — just like there is in a screensaver. ■
The Lion King opens in theatres on Friday, July 19. Watch the trailer here: